Four days after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Baltimore’s top prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, stood before a cluster of microphones and cameras to declare that she would pursue charges against six officers in the young man’s death. During the nationally televised news conference in May 2015, she promised the riot weary city that she would “deliver justice” on Gray’s behalf.
Fourteen months later, Mosby again faced the grip of news cameras — this time announcing that her office would drop all the remaining charges in the Gray case.
Despite a mistrial, three acquittals and a year of being “physically and professionally threatened, mocked, harassed and even sued,” a still-defiant Mosby said she remained convinced that bringing charges against the officers was the right thing to do.
“Justice is always worth the price of pursuit,” Mosby said Wednesday after the charges were dismissed. “We do not believe Freddie Gray killed himself.”
But while Mosby stood firm, defense attorneys and legal observers say the state faced insurmountable hurdles in winning a conviction against any officers from the start: The investigation and charges were rushed, and the evidence was thin. Problems with the case — which some say shouldn’t have been prosecuted at all — and how the state handled it became more apparent with each passing trial.
After the third acquittal of an officer, and with the judge again saying that prosecutors didn’t have the facts for a criminal conviction, Mosby and her team this month probably realized that no new evidence would emerge in the remaining trials to secure a conviction, said Adam Ruther, a former Baltimore prosecutor now in private defense practice.
“There’s a point at which you recognize doing the same thing over and over is not an effective strategy,” Ruther said. “It’s the right conclusion: that it’s not worth the taxpayers’ time and money.”
Prosecutors dismissed the charges against Garrett Miller as his trial was set to begin Wednesday. The state also dropped charges against Sgt. Alicia White and Officer William Porter. Officers Edward Nero, Caesar Goodson Jr. and Lt. Brian Rice were all acquitted earlier this year.
Unlike instances in which a suspect is killed after officers use force — shooting, Tasering or a physical scuffle — Gray’s fatal injury came when he was alone in a compartment in a police van on the day of his April 12, 2015, arrest. Prosecutors argued that he died because officers shackled his arms and legs but failed to seat-belt him, leaving him to fall and strike his head.
Prosecutors had thrown out a variety of theories over four trials in their quest to win a conviction: Officers gave Gray a “rough ride”; officers callously ignored Gray’s cries for medical help; officers illegally arrested Gray and didn’t put him in a seat belt to punish him for making a scene as he was being detained.
But every theory fell flat.
Video of the “rough ride” showed what merely appeared to be a rolling stop and a wide turn, and the state’s own expert witness couldn’t say that the officer driving the van was being reckless. The state couldn’t prove that officers knew Gray was suffering from a medical emergency before they found him unconscious. And it turns out that an officer charged with illegally arresting Gray never laid a hand on him during his initial detainment.
“They tried to create a narrative of the infamous ‘rough ride,’ and it just didn’t come true,” said Tyler Mann, a city defense attorney and former city prosecutor. “They thought they could present this narrative of police acting out, and that’s not just how things fell into place.”
In reading his verdict across three bench trials, Judge Barry G. Williams repeatedly said that prosecutors did not present enough evidence to show that officers intended to hurt Gray or that his death was anything beyond a tragic accident.
“The court’s imaginings do not serve as a substitute for evidence,” Williams said in his most recent verdict.
That evidence was lacking for prosecutors became apparent when they fought to have Porter testify against other officers charged in the case despite awaiting retrial. Never before in Maryland history had a co-defendant facing trial been forced to testify for the prosecution. But prosecutors took the case all the way to the state’s highest court, saying their case would be “gutted” without Porter as a “necessary and material” witness. After months of legal wrangling that delayed the trials, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that Porter, Miller and others could be compelled to testify in exchange for limited immunity.
Still, the challenges for the state appeared increasingly overwhelming as Miller’s trial approached. New prosecutors were expected to take on Miller’s case and Porter’s retrial to maintain the integrity of the immunity offers.
This month, the defense alleged in court filings that Michael Schatzow, the chief deputy state’s attorney, had improperly continued to discuss Miller’s case with the new prosecutors.
Staci Pipkin, a former city prosecutor now in private practice, said that contention likely “weighed very heavily” into Mosby’s decision.
“Clearly they had given up on that pretense that they were keeping the trials separate,” Pipkin said. “If they had gone forward,” she said, “it would have been a disaster for the original prosecutors. For the whole office.”
The defenders also leveraged some key legal strategies that played in their favor. Each sought a separate trial. And they began opting for a verdict from a judge rather than a jury.
“The state’s attorney charged everybody together because it looks a lot stronger” as a single narrative to explain what happened to Gray, Mann said. “That all the officers were tried separately, that definitely weakens the state’s case.”
Marshall Henslee, a Baltimore defense attorney and former public defender, said Nero’s decision to select a bench trial over a jury trial played a big role in the cases being dropped. After other defendants saw Nero’s acquittal — the first in all of the trials — they were emboldened to do the same.
Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who attended the Gray trials every day, said the failings of the case didn’t lie with the state but with the system that makes it nearly impossible to convict police officers of wrongdoing. Colbert said police officers and their unions often expect different treatment from the legal system than regular citizens get.
“The public’s interest is best served when we eliminate the police code of silence, which really is the number one obstacle against a successful prosecution,” Colbert said. “Too often, police are the only witnesses to crimes committed by other officers, and the public has every right to demand the police come forward and speak the truth about what occurred.”
At the news conference on Wednesday, Mosby said the legitimacy of her prosecutions “were affirmed time and time again.” The grand jury returned an indictment, a commissioner signed off on charges and the judge rejected dozens of motions for dismissal or acquittal.
Instead, Mosby blamed the lack of convictions on police who were uncooperative through the course of the investigation. And although she didn’t win a conviction, Mosby said neither she nor the community lost. The case prompted reforms within the police department and held officers accountable, she said.
“The only loss and the greatest loss in all of this,” Mosby said, “is Freddie Gray’s life.”